The BYU MFA: An interview with Stephen B Tuttle of the new creative-writing program (part two)

Stephen B Tuttle is a participant professor in BYU’s new MFA for creative writing. The first half of this interview posted August 5.

Do you worry about the MFA bubble that was written about in I think it was The New Yorker last year. This idea that MFAs exist to train MFA instructors and soon we’ll have more MFAs than we need?

I’m not concerned about that at all. That’s a concern that’s been around a while, and it makes sense if you think about us as a vocational school where we’re training writers who now need to get jobs as writers. One thing that is true about BYU—and I think it’s probably more true about BYU than many programs, certainly thnt the big prestige programs, certainly more than Texas-Austin or anywhere else—is that a great many of our writers aren’t planning on careers in writing. They’re good writers and they want to keep writing but for a lot of reasons that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the job market. I don’t think our writers are by and large thinking about going on to jobs in teaching.

I think a lot of them are hoping to go on to publication. That market may be oversaturated as well, but it’s oversaturated in a different way and has been for a longer time than the teaching market.

I’m often surprised by how many of our MFA students really aren’t considering a PhD, which is the next logical step if you’re interested in moving forward. The other thing though— There was a book that came out last year called The Program Era, all about the history of the creative-writing programs in the United States, and the argument the book makes—I hope that I’m not getting it wrong—is that whether you like it or not, the Twentieth Century in American literature is shaped by creative-writing programs. Our best writers, our most famous writers are in many many cases people who have either come out of programs or—even if you’re looking at people like Raymond Carver—people who were deeply influenced by those programs because they taught in them. Carver may not have come out of a program but he certainly was molded by programs, having taught at Iowa and places like that. So I sort of think that the creative-writing program is what we do now. Not to say a writer couldn’t be successful; there are too many examples to count of people who have built sizable reputations and terrific bodies of literature without any affiliation with an MFA program or any kind of writing program. But this to me is the place where people go because they are interested in honing a craft, honing some skills as a writer. And if the market is flooded and there aren’t enough jobs for them—I don’t know. That’s a problem, I guess, if all those people want jobs but I think we’re free of some of that anxiety at BYU because so many of our students are coming in it for a—not to be coy about it, but I think a lot of our students are in it just for the love of it. They enjoy writing and they want to be better writers and their hopes aren’t tied to some notion of a job at the end.

When people do start graduating, and for who do want jobs, are you lining up means to help them get on to a PhD or a teaching job or a job in publishing or a contract— To be crass, to compare it to, say, an MBA program where one of their big goals is to be sure everyone has a job. Of course, that’s not true with an MFA in the same way, but those who are interested, how to you assist them in that?

This is a tricky one because this is built into the nitty-gritty as well was an assertion we made that the MFA is not a terminal degree like it used to be. People still call it a terminal degree but the truth of the matter is most teaching in creative-writing programs around the nation have PhDs anymore. And if they don’t a PhD they have a body of publications behind them that suggests they don’t need a PhD now that they’ve got some other form of clout.

Which is to say we campaigned on this notion that we need an MFA not because it’s because it’s a terminal degree but primarily because what BYU does, what BYU is proud of is that BYU is ranked high among schools that send students off to PhD programs. They’re kind of a gateway to more education, rather than to jobs. That’s largely what the MFA has become and it feels like that is what it is for us. It’s this way to prepare students for the next step in their education, not for their first job.

So I haven’t seen any of my students, for example, come through our program and them on to a job. What I’ve seen is several move through our program toward a PhD. And as far as getting them ready for the PhD, I think we do a pretty good job. We have a close working relationship with our students. So much so that we’re sort of down in the trenches with them, helping them get their applications together, get their academic work together, get their writing samples together. And with that, good success on that front. I can’t think of any examples of our students who have wanted to get their PhD and have tried—even sort of a flimsy attempt—who haven’t been successful at getting in to those programs. Maybe not their first choice, but in many cases they did get in their first choice.

The jury’s still out on what happens after. I’m not sure. We’ve had some success, people going to PhD programs then getting jobs. Several of the people I work with came through BYU as masters students before the MFA, went on to get PhDs elsewhere, then came back as a teacher. So I think we do what we can, but we’re not like the MBA model that you suggest. We’re not really preparing our students for jobs out the door. We’re preparing them for more education or, in some cases, it’s the end of the line. This is what they wanted to do, they’ve done it, and now they’ll keep writing.

Back to the students who are just interested in writing for writing’s sake and perhaps for publication, is BYU able to bring in agents and editors and people of that stripe?

We haven’t, no. That may be the kind of thing that changes, but I don’t see it—maybe on the horizon. But one thing we’ld like to do is bring in writers, as significant as we can. By “significant” I mean “name recognition on the national level.” We have a reading series and every year we bring in writers we are proud to bring in and we give our students plenty of opportunity to sit down, in many cases in one-on-one interviews, with these writers. Classes will interview them. They’ll go visit and teach classes. So they come to campus and they really get to know our students pretty well. These are people who have something to offer writers as writers, not as future employees or teachers or whatever it is.

I know that model happens elsewhere, going back to Texas and Austin, they bring in all kinds of agents and such. To me it’s a different kind of MFA program. This just ties in with the other things that I’m saying, but I don’t think that we’re as career-minded as them. And I, quite honestly, don’t see that as a fault or a lack. We’re content to train writer as writers and introduce them to writers and not feel a major obligation to get them prepped for their first big book or something.

Are your students striving for publications in smaller journals and so forth while they’re working on their degree?

A lot of them are. Different faculty members push the publication angle more than others, but especially those students who are PhD-minded or career-minded, they’re actively seeking publication. And some of them have been very successful at getting into good journals and winning contests and things like that. I’m sorry I don’t have a list. It’s something that happens on a personal level more than it does on the program-wide model. We’re not actively encouraging our students to seek publication, although in many cases, individually, we do.

Based on input from the first half of this interview, I emailed Stephen these follow-up questions:

Any chance BYU will offer a low-residency option some time in the future?

We don’t have a low-residency degree in our plans at the moment. Our program is a fairly traditional one in the sense that we rely heavily on workshop environments where students work closely with other students and develop strong relationships with each other. The low-residency model depends on entirely different architecture and puts different demands on the faculty and administrators. While I admire the work that low-residency MFA programs are doing I don’t anticipate anything similar at BYU in the immediate future.

How many students do you accept a year, how does that break down by fiction/poetry/essay/etc?

We accept up to 10 students a year into the program. We don’t have a firm rule about how genres are represented, but we do try to find a good mix of genres

I don’t expect you to have a proselytory mission statement on the topic, but I’m sure it comes up in faculty and student discussion, so I wonder if you would comment on the role of a BYU MFA in terms of the following (I could have picked any of many others of course, but this one from Elder Ballard seems particularly direct): “With so many choices for viewers and listeners, the artistic works of the Latter-day Saint not only need to be uplifting, they must be excellent, to set them apart from the worldly and the mediocre. People deserve alternatives of quality, the kind that Latter-day Saints are capable of providing through the influence of the Holy Spirit.”

This question doesn’t come up as often as you might expect. Good art is, of course, insightful, and I think I can speak for my colleagues when I say that we encourage our students to produce writing that inspires an investigation of the world, that inspires a reader to think about the world in new and more complicated ways. But in my opinion it is also crucially important that LDS artists produce work that will resonate with an audience that is not LDS. We try to teach our students to write excellent poems and stories and essays. And because our students are overwhelmingly LDS, that writing is often very much influenced by faith. But I, at least, don’t sense a need to teach students what their faith is. They come to us with firm convictions that may or may not be represented in their writing. What we do, however, is teach writing. In the final analysis, I think it’s fair to say that we don’t train LDS artists as much as we train artists who happen to be LDS. And we do so, I hope, in a way that allows the artist every opportunity to create insightful, excellent work that is consistent with his or her faith.

Applications for the BYU creative-writing MFA are next due (for Fall 2011) on January 15.

27 thoughts on “The BYU MFA: An interview with Stephen B Tuttle of the new creative-writing program (part two)”

  1. The Program Era is an excellent book and a must-read for anyone who has graduated from or is thinking of applying to an MFA program in creative writing. To slightly refine Stephen’s reference: what it argues is that creative writing programs have had a huge influence on American literary fiction during the latter part of the 20th century and that most major American writers of literary fiction have some sort of relationship to one or more MFA programs, although those relationships are often tortured.

    What’s also great about the book is how McGurl delineates (and even charts) the literary values that creative writing MFA programs promulgate. He also provides some fascinating readings of core works of American literary fiction by viewing them through the lens of the authors experience with creative writing programs.

  2. Interesting thoughts. A couple of things, though, drive me up the wall a bit (partway up the wall?). First:

    “Our best writers, our most famous writers are in many many cases people who have either come out of programs or–even if you’re looking at people like Raymond Carver–people who were deeply influenced by those programs because they taught in them.”

    That’s true only if you’re limiting your focus to literary fiction. What about Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Roger Zelazny, Ursula Le Guin, Gene Wolfe, etc.? For that matter, I wonder whether such a statement is true about figures like James Michener and Leon Uris?

    And then there’s this:

    “[O]ne thing we’ld like to do is bring in writers, as significant as we can. By ‘significant’ I mean ‘name recognition on the national level.'”

    Which of course is why the BYU College of Humanities dropped their sponsorship of Life, the Universe, and Everything, which over the course of 25 years has consistently brought national authors to the BYU campus, at a minimum cost. (Because it’s a student-run event, and because it’s the convention in sf&f, authors who have come to the BYU symposium have expenses paid only — no honorarium. And we’ve brought people like Algis Budrys, Roger Zelazny, Stephen R. Donaldson, Robin McKinley, C. J. Cherryh, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Patricia McKillip, not to mention Orson Scott Card.)

    It’s arguable that Mormon literature in general and BYU in particular has produced more successful active practitioners in science fiction and fantasy than any other literary genre. For the most part, they owe very little to the BYU creative writing program(s). It looks like that is unlikely to change.

  3. Which of course is why the BYU College of Humanities dropped their sponsorship of Life, the Universe, and Everything . . .

    When did this happen? What does it mean for the future of LTUE?

  4. 2 years ago. Eventually, it was picked up by the College of Fine Arts and Communications (or maybe it was the theater department). Orson Scott Card helped with that. For now, things seemed good.

    I’m hoping that in a few years, they might be able to get some sponsorship from the College of Humanities again, and/or the English Department or creative writing program.

  5. Let’s be careful about assigning motivations and attitudes to certain people unless it’s a matter of public record. Which it may be. But if it is, I haven’t seen it — thus the caution.

  6. .

    I didn’t look up the names you list, Jonathan, but I know that, for instance, James Michener’s money pays for the Austin MFA. I suspect plenty of popular and genre writers have MFA connections.

  7. I’ve removed the part of my previous comment that I believe may have offended.

  8. I have a question for Stephen if you are still reading the comments to this post:

    We have quite a few AMV contributors and readers who are interested in the BYU MFA. For many of us, the bulk of our publications are in the Mormon journals — specifically Irreantum and Dialogue. How does the application committee weight those kinds of publications? Should we all just stop submitting to Irreantum and chase non-Mormon venues? What if we have ambitions to reach non-LDS audiences but also want to continue to occasionally write for the Mormon market? Will you take those goals in to account or do we get pigeon-holed as a Mormon market writer?

    Basically: what improves or decreases the chances of an AML/AMV crowd writer getting in to the program?

  9. I enjoyed the interview. Thanks. As to Raymond Carver, and myself being neutral on how significant the MFA is in contemporary creative writing, he did take a memorable creative writing class. I am sure that Professor Tuttle is correct that he did not do an MFA. But the class is worth mentioning because the teacher was John Gardner, who was teaching at Chico State that year. Carver descibes the class in an introduction he wrote to Gardner’s book, On Becoming a Novelist. Gardner must have been very young when he was teaching the class. He had not published anything yet at that time. The introduction is supposed to be about Gardner but reveals much more about Carver himself, why and how he became a writer. He had a wonderful way of completely revealing himself when he wrote. It is also very interesting to imagine the meeting of these two great writers in little Chico California before either of them had published anything. That developing of relationships is I suppose what the BYU MFA is driving at by emphasizing bringing writers in rather than agents.

  10. Wm Morris, in response to your question about getting accepted into the program, I want to stress what I said in the interview about the quality of writing being key. Publication in Mormon journals is not going to harm an applicant at all. To the contrary, those publications show us that a writer is seriously invested in a literary community.

    But we also consider our ability to help a particular writer develop his or her writing. We look at the quality of the writing and then we ask whether we are in a position (based on the faculty we have) to help the student become a better writer. We have rejected strong writers before because we simply didn’t see how our program was a good fit for them.

    I guess answer is that writers should not shy away from publishing in good venues like you mentioned for fear that those publications will hurt their chances at BYU. Many of our applicants (most, in fact) come with no publication history. But writers also shouldn’t assume that final decisions are based on those publications. We try to find good writers (working in many forms) who we are best prepared to help.

  11. Thanks, Stephen.

    And that’s an important thing to keep in mind for anyone considering an MFA (or any graduate program, really): where’s the best fit — in terms of focus, track record, and faculty — for you and your interests, your ambitions, and where you’re at in your career (as a writer or anthropological or journalist or whatever)?

  12. Roger:

    You may already be aware of this, but for those who aren’t: the Carver-Gardner meeting is covered in The Program Era, which Stephen cites in the original post above. It’s been awhile since I read the book, but as I recall it’s handled quite deftly by McGurl as a launching point for certain attitudes towards both creative writing programs and styles of fiction.

  13. Thanks Wm,

    I did not know that was covered in the Program Era. I will have to take a look at it. As you say, the encouter was part of a launching point of certain attitudes. I have mixed feelings about those attitudes. For example, I admire Carver’s genius, but I also believe that minimalism takes a lot of the fun out of writing or at least reading. As Jonathan points out above, I wonder if BYU has produced a predominance of sf&f writers because it is more fun and more reader friendly.

  14. I have the very same mixed feelings, Roger.

    One of the things I love about the slipstream and/or literary SF&F authors (or whatever you want to call them) like Gene Wolfe, Jack Vance, Michael Moorcock, China Miéville, Glen Cook, etc. is that the plot is fun, but the writing is also expansive and sometimes even florid.

  15. Stephen,
    Thanks for doing this interview. Very useful information. As the managing editor of Mormon Artist magazine (which has published interviews and written work from many of your faculty), I am deeply invested in the Mormon artistic community. I’m glad to know that Mormon publications do not hurt a student’s chance of entry into your program. Thank you for setting the record straight.

    I’m going to be honest. I’ve heard from several sources that a student’s intent to write explicitly from a Mormon perspective–even if he/she is a strong writer–would discourage the committee from admitting said student. Can you speak to this issue? It would be a great relief to me if I could get some clarification on this.


    Katherine Morris

  16. Katherine:

    Did you see what Stephen wrote in comment #10?

    “Publication in Mormon journals is not going to harm an applicant at all.”

  17. I think that what Katherine is asking is somewhat different. (Katherine, please correct me if I’m wrong.) Stephen has clarified that publication in Mormon venues won’t hurt an applicant. But I think what Katherine is asking is somewhat broader: i.e., whether an intention of “writing explicitly from a Mormon perspective” is going to harm an applicant. I take that as meaning more than simply publishing pieces in Mormon venues, but rather a more general statement of intent to work largely or primarily as a Mormon writer, telling Mormon stories — possibly to a largely Mormon audience. As such, I think it’s a good question, though I’d like some more clarification from Katherine as well to let us know more specifically what she was talking about.

  18. Jonathan, that is what I meant. I just wanted a little clarification. There are perfectly valid reasons for not encouraging writers to write specifically from their cultural perspective. I understand that writing within a specific cultural framework and not engaging with more universal themes/readers has the very real risk of encouraging an unfortunate kind of provinciality. However, I also think that there are some very real merits to deliberately engaging with one’s religious culture, even at the risk of provinciality, and I personally would see a place for both kinds of approaches in an MFA program at a religious institution. I’m just wondering how the BYU MFA program weighs in on this issue because I know prospective students who have been advised to not mention Mormonism in their statements of intent. That makes me slightly nervous–the idea that students would feel they needed to mask their religious identity a bit in order to apply for a program at a religious school. Again, I realize there are valid concerns about provinciality, fitness for the national market, etc., etc. Again, I’m just hoping for some clarification here. For all I know, my concerns could be completely unfounded. Or perhaps Stephen could offer some perspective on why it’s best for a writer to not try to write specifically from a cultural perspective if indeed that’s how the BYU MFA program feels.

  19. Ah-ha. That makes much more sense to me now — although I would suggest that looking to the BYU MFA for that sort of thing is probably not the best idea. LDS people who write who would become awesome Mormon writers would probably be better served to get out of Utah Valley and battle it out at an MFA program outside the Intermountain West.

    But that’s my own bias showing.

  20. Responding to William’s comment: I think that’s probably true if students want to write Mormon stories to a national (non-Mormon) audience, but I’m not sure why it should necessarily be the case if someone wants to write stories primarily to Mormon readers. In fact, I’d think that the advice a Mormon writer might get from a non-Mormon program might easily wind up backfiring if he/she tried to apply it to writing for a Mormon audience. I’m not saying that the BYU MFA program is necessarily the right place to learn to write for that audience, but I’m not sure why it wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) be that place.

  21. Well, until the signs point to the notion that it would be/will be that place, I think it’s good to exercise caution. To me, for all that there are wonderful writers on faculty whose work I adore, BYU’s relationship to and institutional support of Mormon fiction is severely lacking in comparison to other colleges that are located in a place with a natural affinity towards certain ethnic literatures. If one is looking to write stories primarily to Mormon readers, I think that it’s often a good idea to experience other ethnic/regional/cultural/religious literatures and take the comparative approach. It’s a cosmopolitan way to both interrogate and celebrate provinciality; whereas, the BYU MFA seems to be positioning itself as very much anti-provincial and focused on success on the national publishing scene — which isn’t a bad thing, but it also means that the Deseret School writer might not be best served there.

    But that again is my own bias because that’s essentially the approach I took. I’m sure I missed out on things because I didn’t attend BYU.

  22. .

    In the interview, Stephen talks about many of their students — a majority? — not pursuing publication at all. They just want to be better writers. And since the MFA does not seem to mind that kind of myopism (not meant pejoratively), I can’t see why subject matter would matter at all.

  23. Wm: I agree with everything you say. There are all kinds of approaches to this sort of thing, and they all have pros and cons. I spent 12 years in the California public school system and was very ready to plunge into an environment where my religious identity would be supported, which is why I chose to attend BYU. For the most part it was, but unfortunately, I also ran across some very concerning attitudes while there. I understand the push for excellence. I understand wanting students to broaden their horizons. But I’m afraid that all too often I saw these ideas causing students to feel like they had to transcend their own religious culture to be taken seriously–and worse–to take themselves seriously. It’s a very common attitude among students at BYU (the “I can’t wait to get out of the ‘bubble'” mentality), and I found it particularly pervasive among English students. I’m wondering if the push for anti-provinciality has the unintended consequence of encouraging students to not want Mormonism to be part of their identity. I think this is a problem (especially when these students’ education is supported by those very provincial tithe-paying members that such an attitude inherently snubs). Anyway, it’s worth discussing. Thanks for everyone’s thoughts.

  24. Theric,

    I could be misinterpreting, but I don’t think Stephen was saying a lot of the students weren’t pursuing publication, but rather that they weren’t pursuing a PhD and teaching creative writing as a career. I can’t honestly understand why anyone would want to study creative writing if he/she didn’t intend to pursue publication.

  25. I oughtn’t to have singled out the BYU English Department. The push for anti-provinciality is not something that is confined to that department, nor is it something that originated in that department. My own department certainly wasn’t immune from it. Also, some of my all-time favorite professors are in BYU’s English Department, and I always tended to get along really well with English majors for the most part. I nearly was one. So, my apologies. I think it just concerns me more to see that attitude in the English Department because their program is in a unique position to nurture Mormon literature.

  26. On the other hand…

    I personally would like to see more signs from the BYU English Department of support of the field of Mormon literature as well as a full-out embrace of the LDS success in the field of speculative fiction.

  27. Looking for a Stephen Tuttle that went to Bunker Hill Community College and took a Russian language course, would that be you sir?

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